By Kevin Gillikin @KevinGillikin And The Skipper
This is the last in a four-part series highlighting the NFL's up-trending and down-trending teams heading into the 2013 season
This year's NFC absolutely kicks it.
Good teams getting better, a couple of marginal teams from 2012 re-entering the race and an extremely stout western division that, according to my projections, will contribute both NFC wild card teams this year.
So, without further eloquence, here are my up-trending teams from the NFC:
#1 - San Francisco 49ers
So, the Denver Broncos are my #1 AFC up-trending team and the 49ers my #1 NFC up-trending team. Any guess who I like for the Super Bowl? San Francisco is the first on the this list for a reason. They were fantastic, young and talented last year and this year they look to be even better.
Collin Kaepernick will head into his first full season as the starting quarterback and shows no signs of slowing down from last year's Superbowl appearance.
The Niners had the fourth best rushing attack in the NFL last year with Frank Gore and Kaepernick rushing from his QB spot behind one of the NFL's top 5 offensive lines. Add in change-of-pace guy Kendall Hunter and they will likely still have one of the best rushing attacks in football.
Their passing game was 11th in the league and all they did in the offseason was to add Anquan Boldin to their receiving corp with Vernon Davis at TE, and Mario Manningham at receiver to add to young star wide receiver Michael Crabtree.
The funny thing is (funny, ironic -- not funny, "haha"), the best part of this team isn't the offense. On defense, they have a very solid secondary with Carlos Rogers, Tarrel Brown and newly-acquired Nnamdi Asomugha at cornerback and Eric Reid and Donte Whitner playing center field at safety. They have an all pro at defensive end in Justin Smith but the real story is their linebacker group is simply SICK. Ahmad Brooks, Navorro Bowman, Aldon Smith and Patrick Willis make this overall defense one of the greatest I've ever seen.
This team is in a brutal division in the West but they could be nearly unbeatable and I see them winning at LEAST 13 games.
Prediction: 14-2, NFC West Champions, Super Bowl LOSERS again.
#2 - New Orleans Saints
I have no doubt that God has a sense of humor. To somebody unassociated with the NFL or American culture, it would seem logical to think of teams with names like "Buccaneers" or "Cowboys" or even "Patriots" involved in a "head hunting" scandal. But the Saints? I think God gets a little chuckle out of that one! Shriven and absolved of their sins and having now paid their penance -- and with Head Coach Sean Peyton back at the helm -- the New Orleans Saints have a legitimate shot at making things interesting in the NFC South in 2013.
They haven't added a ton of talent since last year but they still have QB Drew Brees and what was the NFL's best offense in 2012. Brees is the first QB ever to have two straight 5,000 yard seasons and he shows no signs of slowing down. With Darren Sproles, RB Chris Ivory, WR Marcus Colston and monstrous TE Jimmy Graham, this offense should still be one of the best in the league. I'm guessing it's probably that they play in the deep south and not the northeast, but I'm always in amazement at how little love Drew Brees and Atlanta's Matt Ryan get from the national media.
On defense, the Saints weren't just bad last year, they were historically bad, giving up the most yards in NFL history. They had a strange season win-loss wise with a nice mid-season run (winning 5 of 6) sandwiched inside a 4-game losing streak to begin the season and another 3-game losing streak to (effectively) end it.Kind of like a team, I don't know, that just wasn't the same without its regular head coach.
If this team can improve even a little defensively then they should have a good shot at being one of the most improved teams in football. Sean Payton is now considered one of the most valued coaches in the game. Payton just signed a five year extension for $8 million a year which makes him the highest paid coach in football.
Without all the turmoil they had last year this team is explosive enough to be frightening in the regular season but especially in the playoffs.
Prediction: 10-6, 2nd in the NFC South and -- get this -- OUT of the playoffs.
#3 - St. Louis Rams
Trivia question for you fans out there: When did the Rams lose their first game against an NFC West opponent last year? If you said, "Week 17 against the Seahawks", take a bow! The Rams played in arguably the best division in football in 2012 (pretty much unarguably the NFL's best division in 2013) and went 4-1-1. Outside the division, they were 3-7 with some epic stinkers, including 45-7 against New England (in London), 23-6 against the Bears and 27-13 at home against the Jets. The Jets. The Jets!
With a strange 2012 behind them, St Louis had possibly the NFL's best draft in 2013 and picked up G Barrett Jones, WR Tavon Austin (most explosive player I've ever seen) and LB Alec Ogletree, who only fell to them late because of character issues.
Yes, they lost WR Danny Amendola and RB Steven Jackson from their offense but with the additions of Austin and WR Stedman Bailey in the draft the team may even have upgraded their offense from last season. They will rely heavily on second year RB Isaiah Pead who will be suspended for the first game but looks to be a productive NFL running back.
In the defensive backfield they have second year man Janoris Jenkins and recently acquired Cortland Finnegan to add some moxy to their defense. Chris Long and Robert Quinn combined for 22 sacks last season and adding Ogletree to James Laurinaitis should seriously help them up the middle.
This team is led by Sam Bradford at QB and a great coach in Jeff Fisher and this could be the year that this team really competes. They are, unfortunately for them, in a brutally tough NFC West and I see them winning 10 games at most but sneaking into the playoffs as a scary Cinderella team.
Prediction: 10-6, third place in the NFC West, Wild Card #2
#4 - Chicago Bears
'Da Bears are a team that has gotten very little publicity over the offseason but they are actually my sleeper pick to win the NFC. They greatly upgraded their weak offensive line (major sore spot in 2012)m adding Matt Slauson and Kyle Long.They still have WR Brandon Marhsalland RBs Matt Forte and Michael Bush which could equal one of the best backfield combos in the league.
On defense, they lost future Hall of Famer, Brian Urlacher, to retirement but in his late years he was a liability in pass coverage and really his biggest addition to the team was leadership. To replace him they brought in LB DJ Williams, a long time Bronco and a solid cover and run stopping Mike backer. The defense still has Lance Briggs and Julius Peppers as big men and CBs Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman who between the two of them had 14 turnovers and 4 defensive touchdowns in 2012.
They have a first year coach, offensive guru, Marc Trestman in as head coach and he is likely to help QB Jay Cutler get over the hump into greatness. Cutler has always had the talent but has lacked a bit of mental aptitude and maturity to get to that next level.
If the Bears can get a few offensive guys to kick up their game then this could be one of the premiere teams in the league and will be competing to the very end. In a North Division that I see to be overrated I have them winning 10 or 11 games and winning the North.
Prediction ~ 11-5, NFC North champions
Seattle Seahawks: Probably deserved to be on this list but I didn't feel right having three teams from the West and I think losing Harvin was a big deal. The SeaChickens will still be an incredibly good team and are a good example for how good the NFC will be.
New York Giants: What should be a good offense with a sack heavy offense is always a good start to a winning team. They've also won two of the last four Superbowls and get hot at the right time and find ways to win big games.
Washington Redskins: RG3 and Alfred Morris are two very good reasons that this Skins team could be legit this year. They also have a very good coach in Shanahan and a respectable defense. Success will depend primarily on the health of second year phenom QB, Robert Griffin.
Green Bay Packers: The Pack are my last honorable mention and just sneak onto the list because they have Aaron Rodgers who just might be the best player in football. They, however, don't have a great running game, they lost star wide out Greg Jennings to Free Agency and I think their defense is overrated.